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At commencement, remembering the long struggle to get my degree

As I walked into the stadium for my community college graduation, a photographer from the school’s PR department asked for a quick word. It was the same question I’d heard from others after finishing my associate degree:

“So, what’s next for you?”

While I work on an answer, it’s worth a moment to think about the journey to that commencement stage. It’s easy sometimes, when focusing on the benefits of higher education, to forget what a struggle it can be to complete a degree. My journey, like that of most of today’s students, was filled with speed bumps and detours.

I’d been on my own since the age of 16. But as far as the Pell Grant was concerned, I was dependent on my parents until I was 24, married or a parent myself.  

For two years I besieged the financial aid offices at every campus of Houston Community College. Besides taking on student loans, there were few options until 2009 – when I became pregnant and “qualified” for the Pell Grant.

Even with the grant, I faced serious challenges trying to balance motherhood and education, knowing that my infant son’s future depended on my success. I finished that first semester with a 3.7 GPA, but because I lacked access to child care, I couldn’t return for nearly two years.

Getting to graduation meant late nights parked outside the local library, borrowing Wi-Fi access to submit term papers. There were writeups at work for using “company time” to study, and one semester I worked two part-time jobs while pursuing a full course load, leaving no time for sleep. By all rights, I shouldn’t have made it, and at times it felt I might fall short.

Math almost stopped me. So far behind that, I needed YouTube videos to help learn multiplication, I ended up taking four developmental math courses to catch up.

I learned to prioritize by walking the line financially, balancing a schedule of courses while earning just enough credits to delay the start of student loan payments.

It took four extra semesters to get everything done, and by the end, they were telling me that I had exceeded the maximum Pell Grant. It felt like the ultimate irony: In school to earn financial stability, I was digging an even deeper financial hole.

There are millions of us who have been in this predicament. And finding a solution to the problem of college affordability is vital not only for us, but for the country as a whole as America seeks to build the talent we need to fill millions of open jobs.

But my mind was elsewhere on graduation day. Those larger issues and the details of my struggle melted away as the speaker called my name.

I walked with pride across the stage. There was my family, and the brightest smile came from my son – now 9 years old. It’s hard to describe that moment: After nearly 10 years pursuing an education and hopes for a better future, I had that degree.

And no, to answer that photographer’s question, I don’t know what’s next. This is only a pause – for planning next steps, and most of all, for thanking the people who supported me along the journey.

Whatever happens, I know this much: I’m not stopping now.

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Tracy Chen
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FEATURED VIDEO
Lumina Foundation: Working to ensure a quality education for all Americans
Lumina Foundation: Working to ensure a quality education for all Americans
August 8, 2019

Lumina Foundation is an independent, private foundation in the United States that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. We envision a system that is easy to navigate, delivers fair results, and meets the nation’s need for talent through a broad range of credentials. Our goal is to prepare people for informed citizenship and for success in a global economy. Through our work and our partners’ efforts, we lift people out of poverty, reduce racial inequality, improve health and well-being, promote the availability of good jobs and economic growth, and build sustainable communities.